Essential Books on Writing – Part 1: Steering the Craft, by Ursula LeGuin

I have a shelf full of books on writing I’ve collected over the years. Many of them were purchased in order to help me improve my teaching, to offer to my students insights on narrative craft beyond my own. Others, I bought for inspiration, when stuck in the mire of my own writing. Every now and then, a book comes along that changes the conversation, or at the very least deepens and expands it. One such book is Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, with which you are probably familiar. When I was just starting out as a writer, Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird spoke to me, as it spoke to so many others who were desperate to fashion some kind of writing life. William Zinsser’s On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction, serves as a primer if you are new to the craft and as a kick in the pants if you’ve been doing it for a while. There are so many others, and over the next few weeks and months, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites.

In 1998, Ursula LeGuin added her substantial voice to the canon with Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Writer or the Mutinous Crew. Many books about writing, oddly enough, are written by people who never had much success as writers. So it’s always exciting to find a book on craft by a writer you never imaged would write a book on craft–because that person is so busy being an actual writer, publishing books and being generally awesome in the world of literature. Steering the Craft was first published in 1998 with the mouthful of a subtitle , but an updated version, subtitled A Twenty-First Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, was released in 2013.

In the introduction to the new edition, LeGuin, whose work has always existed on the edge of the known world, explains:

I wanted my book to reflect the risks and chances of sailing the stormy waters of publishing–print and electronic–in this day and age, while never losing sight of the pole stars of the art of storytelling: how prose works and how a story moves.

LeGuin forgoes the typical craft breakdown (characterization, dialogue, plot, etc) and focuses on these aspects of storytelling:

  • the sound of language
  • punctuation, syntax, the narrative sentence and paragraph
  • rhythm and repetition
  • adjectives and adverbs
  • tense and person of the verb
  • voice and point of view
  • implicit narration
  • crowding, leaping, focus, and control

Evident here is LeGuin’s deep admiration for the sentence, her absolute certainty that every great story relies upon the language the writer chooses to convey meaning and mood.

The sound of the language is where it all begins. The test of a sentence is, Does it sound right?

So begins LeGuin’s beautiful foray into story, a book that will remind you of the finer aspects of voice and narrative vision. Steering the Craft is packed with excerpts and related exercises. It’s short and powerful. If you’re looking for a book to begin your education on writing, or if you just need inspiration, this is a great place to start.

Grace Paley on Voice – Writers on Writing

grace pale

Grace Paley is one of the few writers whose work I could pick up, with no name or other identification on the cover, and know instantly that it is hers. Paley’s voice is so distinct, so recognizable in its abruptness, its stops and starts, its clever and heartfelt truth laced with humor. Her dialogue, in particular, drags you onto the New York street or into the cramped flat with her characters.

In an interview with the CBC Radio program Writers and Company, host Eleanor Wachtel asks Paley about “the uniqueness of your voice…where does that voice come from?”

Comes from the Bronx to begin with. Comes from my mommy and daddy. It comes from the language around me…I have this way of describing the voice if you want to call it that, or anybody else’s voice, which to really work has to come from two places really, and the first place I’ve just described which is home, really, and that’s one ear, see. I always say, ‘That’s why we have two ears.’ The other ear is for literature, and so that’s been in my ear from Mother Goose on–the traditions of English literature particularly with other sounds in translation coming in. But those two ears I think make everybody’s voice.”

The interviewer replies, “Everyone’s got two ears but they don’t write like you,” to which Paley quips, “Well, they don’t come from the Bronx, what can I say?”

Wattle says Paley’s voice was there from he beginning–in her very first published story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” which appeared in Paley’s first story collection, The Little Disturbances of Man. Haley says she had wanted to write prose, but had been writing poetry instead, until the moment when she wrote the first line of Goodbye and Good Luck. “I’d been writing poetry up until the moment I wrote that line. I wanted to write prose, I wanted to write stories, but that particular line resonated for me, and when I began to write it really was like a breakthrough for me, because my poetry was nothing like that at all. When I started writing the stories it was really like a new sound for me in my head.”

Paley said there were a number of reasons she wanted to write prose instead of poetry, but one of the primary reasons was that she was spending a lot of time with women who were doing exactly what she did–raising their children. She was interested in the lives of those women she knew from her kids’ preschool, and in the lives of the women in her family.

In the interview, Paley also talks motherhood, the friends she had who lost their children to AIDs and drugs and other tragedies, and “the terrible edge of life, the tragic fact you can’t avoid”:

We all bring our children up, especially in this country, with such belief and determination, but belief that everything will be well–if they’re fed well and so forth, if they’re white middle class children, certainly–they’ll be okay. Of course other families know from the very beginning that their children are very vulnerable, no matter what decade they’re living in.

Paley says, surprisingly, that she was considered “a dead bust” in her family “after being a very smart little child…I never made it through school the right way. I never finished school. I never got a profession.”

Fortunately for us, Paley’s profession was writing.

Read Paley’s inimitable stories in The Little Disturbances of Man and Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, and learn about her life–personal, political, and literary–in her wonderful memoir, Just As I Thought.



5 Fresh, Inspiring Books on Design – The Best Design Books to Read Right Now

We all have “things that matter” in our lives, possessions that mean more to us than they could to anyone else, objects that tell our life stories. When we honor those objects and live with them in a functional way, it brings a sense of calm and order to our homes. The most inspiring design books don’t provide a list of things to buy. Instead, they show us how to hit refresh on our homes by balancing what we already have with our day-to-day needs.

Here are the five best design books I’ve read lately. Whatever your lifestyle, whatever your aesthetic, you’ll find plenty of ideas for making your home more beautiful, functional, and livable. Learn how to arrange what you already have; how to style an entryway, bookshelves, or any space; how to live with art, mix modern with vintage, or bring the outside in.

Every one of these books offers a wealth of photos, as well as room-by-room guides and isights on how to think creatively about your space. And they all prove that you don’t have to spend lavishly to live stylishly.

Best Design Book for Busy Moms

Design Mom: How to Live with Kids: A Room-by-Room Guide by Gabrielle Blair.

Gabrielle Blair really knows how to live with kids. She has six of them! DESIGN MOM shows you how to create a beautiful, functional, unfussy, kid-friendly home. Featuring great advice on how to live with kids’ stuff without letting it take over the house, and great storage ideas for corralling stuff while keeping a warm, modern aesthetic. Blair lives in Oakland. Go to her blog, Design Mom, for inspiration.

Best Design Book for Styling Tricky Spaces

Styled: Secrets for Arranging Rooms, from Tabletops to Bookshelves by Emily Henderson
Emily Henderson provides a 10-step guide to arranging your tricky spaces, like entryways and bookshelves, with “1,000 design ideas for creating the most beautiful, personal, and livable rooms.” This is a photo-heavy book without a whole lot of text. The book is broken down by room, and tends toward the midcentury modern and boho styles.

Best Design Book for the Naturalist

Habitat: The Field Guide to Decorating by Lauren Liess

In this meaty design book, Lauren Liess, the blogger behind Pure Style Home,, provides a crash course on architectural elements (“The Fundamental Elements of Design”), then walks readers through “The Intangible Elements of Design”–style, mood, comfort, luxury, and charm, among others. She finishes with a room-by-room guide. This is a book for readers, not just lookers. Less, who specializes in bringing the outside in, shows you how to mix natural, vintage, and modern elements; how to use color, lighting, and texture; and how to live beautifully with art.

Best Design Book on a Budget

The Inspired Room: Simple Ideas to Love the Home You Have by Melissa Michaels

You don’t have to spend a lot of money to have a beautiful home. Michaels encourages you to begin with what you have. She divides rooms up by function–a place to gather (living room and dining room), a space that nourishes (kitchen and pantry), a place for conversation (family room). A beautiful, thoughtful, and doable guide for the happy I’mperfectionist.

Best Design Book for the Nostalgic

The Things That Matter by Nate Berkus

Part memoir, part design book, The Things That Matter feels like an intimate conversation with design guru Nate Berkus. See inside Berkus’s home and discover the people, places, and things that influenced and inspired him. Berks believes that every home tells a story. Featuring detailed photos from 12 homes and the stories that make each home unique. Booklist raves, “This is truly an awe-filled, happy book, on the surface about decorating, but, on a deeper level, how the things we love unfold our soul.” More a by-the-bedside book than a coffee table book, this is one you’ll want to sit with for a while.

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Submitting Your Novel

The difference between getting a serious read and having your manuscript go straight to the delete file can come down to something as seemingly simple as improper formatting.

Here are five mistakes that will ensure your manuscript doesn’t get read by an agent or editor:

1. Single spacing and non-standard spacing between paragraphs

Manuscripts should be double-spaced, with a standard indention in each paragraph. Don’t add extra lines between paragraphs, either. You’re not writing for the web! Adding extra spaces between paragraphs instead of indenting the first line of each paragraph is a common mistake that screams “unprofessional.”

2. A rambling or boastful cover letter.

A cover letter for a novel should provide a brief synopsis, as well as your previous publications or relevant qualifications (an MFA in creative writing, for example, or a writing workshop through a respected university or with a well-known writer). While it should definitely have a hook, it should not tell the reader that it’s “the best book you’ll read this year,” “a sure bestseller,” or “a riveting adventure story.” That’s for the reader to decide.

Remember, agents and editors have been around the block. They know how hard it is for a book to be a genuine bestseller (not an Amazon bestseller, which, it turns out, is kind of a scam). They know that even much-anticipated titles with high-level support from the publisher often don’t make the New York Times bestseller list, the USA Today bestseller list, the Indie Next bestseller list, or any of the lists that matter. So if you tell them your book is destined to be a bestseller, it makes you look arrogant and uninformed.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with self-publishing, but if you’ve done that, never include Amazon reviews in your cover letter as a way of validating your book. On the other hand, if you’ve sold 10,000 copies or more of your book on Amazon (meaning people have paid for it, not that you’ve given it away for free), include that in your letter. It shows that you’ve already done some groundwork and people have found your book interesting enough to pay for it.

Your cover letter should be interesting and engaging, and it should make the agent or editor in question want to read your book. Anything you write that makes you seem self-centered or difficult to work with will lead to a swift rejection.

3. Weird fonts

If you’re tempted to get creative with fonts, don’t. Cursive, all caps, excessive bolding, or difficult-to-read fonts come off as unprofessional and even aggressive. Stick to Times New Roman, Garamond, or Helvetica?—?something simple, clean, and easy to read. Courier used to be the standard, but it looks oddly old-fashioned now (everyone knows you’re not using an actual typewriter). 12 points has long been the standard, but in a slightly smaller font, like Garamond, I’ll often use 13 points to increase readability.

4. An excessive or overwritten prologue

This, I admit, may be a matter of taste. However, in general, agents and editors want to get right into a book. They want to be hooked from sentence once. Often, writers will decide to put their “best writing” in a prologue. This may be overwritten prose that is intended more to show off. In your opening pages, don’t show off. Hook the reader. Make the story so compelling it’s impossible to put down. Make sure there’s conflict from page one.

5. Lack of Focus

An agent or editor should know very quickly what kind of book he or she is getting into. The cover letter will do a lot of this work for you: it should let the reader know what the genre is, and what the book is about. Is it a literary thriller? Is it a literary coming-of-age novel with mainstream appeal? Is it a historical romance? Don’t be afraid of labels! 

Labels save the reader a lot of time and let them know that a:) you’ve thought about how to market the book and b:) there is a specific audience for this book.

6. Lack of “Comps”

Be sure to include comps: comparabe books that have sold well in the last few years. If you don’t include two or three comps, it looks as though you know nothing about the industry and you don’t care enough to think about who your book will appeal to.

7. A Boring First Chapter

If the agent or editor reads past the cover letter to page one of the novel, you’re already ahead. Don’t squander that first chapter! The chapter should deliver on the promise of the cover letter. The reader needs to know that she’s in good hands, that this is the work of a competent storyteller who knows what she’s writing about, and why.

Michelle Richmond is the author of four novels and two story collections and the founder of micro-press Fiction Attic. This piece is excerpted from her Publishing Crash Course: Agents, Editors, Independent Publishing Vs. Traditional, and How to Beat the Odds.